You get the feeling that sooner or later every songwriter, singer, or pop group beloved by baby boomers will get their own jukebox musical.
Already the roster includes — and this is but a partial list — Carole King, Michael Jackson, Cher, the Temptations, Abba, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Donna Summer, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Gloria Estefan, Elvis Presley, Queen, and Jimmy Buffett.
Now it’s Neil Diamond’s turn. And Diamond has the great good fortune to have Will Swenson playing him in “A Beautiful Noise,” directed by Michael Mayer in the premiere at the venerable Emerson Colonial Theatre. The power of Swenson’s electric performance nearly blows the roof off the old joint.
“A Beautiful Noise” has a few problems — more on that later — but they vanish from the mind when Swenson is blasting at full-throttle through Diamond compositions like “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Holly Holy,” “Solitary Man,” “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “Shilo,” and, yes, “Sweet Caroline.”
(Do I even need to tell you that the audience inside the Colonial chimed in with the Fenway Park “So good, so good, so good” refrain during “Sweet Caroline”?)
Whether singing or speaking, Swenson uncannily channels Diamond’s voice as well as the way he moved during concerts in his heyday, sequined jumpsuits and all. But the actor’s portrayal goes beyond mimicry. As Jessie Mueller did in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” Swenson manages to both inhabit and heighten the real-life character he’s playing.
Not that his blend of magnetism, virtuosity, and dynamism will surprise anyone who’s seen him onstage before. Swenson’s gleefully hammy incarnation of the Pirate King in Barrington Stage Company’s production of “The Pirates of Penzance” remains one of my favorite theater memories.
Because some members of the “Beautiful Noise” cast came down with COVID, forcing a pause in performances, the production went on Sunday night after nine previews instead of the 19 that were planned. You wouldn’t know it from the performance, and that’s a credit to everyone involved.
Steven Hoggett’s choreography adroitly uses movement to capture certain turning points, including the moment when Diamond is sucked into the vortex of stardom, his life never to be the same again. The ensemble does a first-rate job from start to finish, and so does the onstage band, which includes music supervisor and arranger Sonny Paladino on keyboards.
Now, about those problems.
The general story line of “A Beautiful Noise” is a pretty familiar one: An entertainer strives for stardom, then achieves it, but at a personal cost, with happiness remaining elusive. That familiarity leads to a slackening in the musical’s momentum in spots during Act Two, when “A Beautiful Noise” ventures perilously close to the vibe of a tribute act.
Then there’s the material itself. Though he’s a pop craftsman as skilled as he is driven, Diamond has written a fair number of clunkers to go along with his many good songs. Both categories are amply represented onstage. Points for comprehensiveness, I guess, but the less-than-beautiful noise creates some weaknesses in the show.
For instance, book writer Anthony McCarten and director Mayer make a valiant attempt to present “I Am … I Said” as some kind of magnum opus, staging the song as a psychological breakthrough duet between Swenson and an impassioned Mark Jacoby, who plays the older Diamond (and is excellent throughout). But that effort runs headlong into the banality of “I Am … I Said” itself, including the cringe-inducing lyric “And no one heard at all/Not even the chair.”
Another underwhelming effort is “Forever in Blue Jeans,” which comes across as mere filler despite the best efforts of the talented Robyn Hurder, who plays Diamond’s second wife, Marcia Murphey, and who performs the song. Her energetic, stage-devouring dancing fails to bring “Blue Jeans” to life.
A slightly surprising plus is how well the show’s framing device works — certainly better than I expected. The older Diamond (Jacoby) sits in a leather armchair in a therapist’s (Linda Powell) office, trying to get to the bottom of his lifelong feelings of dissatisfaction and self-doubt. Cue the flashbacks, with Jacoby looking on somberly.
We see Swenson as Diamond in his early years, trying to break through as a songwriter, then as a performer, with the encouragement of singer-songwriter-record producer Ellie Greenwich (an enjoyably sardonic Bri Sudia). After hearing him sing, Greenwich describes Diamond’s voice as “gravel wrapped up in velvet,” and tells him: “You’re too good to only write for other people.”
Later, in a bid to forge an independent artistic identity rather than serve as a hit-making machine, Diamond battles to get out of his contract with a mob-controlled record label.
Diamond leaves his first wife, Jaye Posner (Jessie Fisher) for the glamorous Marcia. That marriage, too, eventually dissolves, a casualty of Diamond’s constant touring, a turn of events achingly crystallized in Swenson and Hurder’s duet on “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”
Throughout his career, at least as depicted in “A Beautiful Noise,” Diamond has to battle the malaise of the is-that-all-there-is? syndrome, of the joy that dissipates too quickly, the sour smell of success. The answers “A Beautiful Noise” ultimately provides for that malaise come across as too facile and pat.
But none of the show’s flaws are enough to diminish, much less eclipse, Swenson’s achievement. To see a respected veteran performer like him rise to the occasion the way he does in “A Beautiful Noise” affords a particular kind of gratification to a theatergoer. You might say it feels … well, you know.
A BEAUTIFUL NOISE
Book by Anthony McCarten. Music and lyrics by Neil Diamond. Music supervision and arrangements, Sonny Paladino. Choreography, Steven Hoggett. Directed by Michael Mayer. At Emerson Colonial Theatre. Through Aug. 7. Tickets $49-$399. 888-616-0272, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com